Monday, November 30, 2009

350 & 2 deg C ...

Every news programme you watched and listened to, newspapers you read lately is full of Climate Change and the coming Copenhagen Conference. But do we really understand what is going on? To make something of it we must remember two numbers: 350 and 2 deg C. Why are these numbers significant? Here is what Goh Sui Noi wrote in the Straits Times on 24 November 2009 (I can’t put it any better):

“LAST month on Oct 24, United Nations Day, people around the world had the number '350' thrown at them. Activists - from skateboarders in Australia to farmers in Bangladesh, and from divers in the Maldives to herders on the Mongolian steppes - formed the number with their bodies or held placards and banners bearing it. In Singapore, more than 300 volunteers formed the number for an aerial photograph. They wanted to etch the number deep in the minds of as many human beings as possible. They wanted citizens to push their leaders to negotiate a strong treaty next month in Copenhagen to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and thereby prevent irreversible climate change.

This number - 350 - refers to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere by volume: 350 parts per million (ppm). It is the low end of a range of 350 ppm to 550 ppm that scientists believe will trigger irreversible climate change. We are now at 387 ppm, and the last time we saw 350 ppm was in 1987. The figure of 350 ppm is what scientists believe is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Another figure to remember is 2 deg C. This is a European Union target - to limit the increase in global temperature to a maximum of 2 deg C over pre-industrial levels (or 1.2 deg C over today's level). A rise above 2 deg C is likely to trigger dangerous irreversible climate change.

To achieve this target would require the world to stabilise carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at about 400 ppm and greenhouse gas concentrations - carbon dioxide plus other greenhouse gases - at about 445-490 ppm. Based on the current growth trajectory, greenhouse gas levels could hit 550-700 ppm in 2050.

So what do we do with the knowledge of the possible danger we and our children face? Take the bus or cycle to work or school, use reusable shopping bags, remember to switch off lights not in use, buy fewer clothes, recycle our waste? For how long? A week? A month?

The world needs a more concerted effort than what we as individuals can do on our own - although individual actions are important - to cut emissions to meet the 2deg C target. Emissions must peak by 2020 and then be more than halved by 2050 relative to 1990 levels for global warming to fall below the 2 deg C limit. Developed countries will have to cut their emissions by 25 per cent to 40per cent and developing countries, which emit far less carbon dioxide per capita than rich nations, will have to slow their emissions growth.

A powerful mechanism for reducing emissions would be establishing a carbon price - that is, impose a cost on carbon emissions. Having to pay a price for spewing carbon into the atmosphere would motivate countries, businesses and individuals to reduce their carbon emissions. It would discourage the use of fossil fuels and encourage the development of renewable sources of energy and low-carbon emission, energy-efficient consumer technologies.

'We need more energy, less carbon and price signals to unleash the energy to take us forward,' said Mr Jeremy Benthem, vice-president of Shell Global Business Environment, at a recent conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Two ways to price carbon have been proposed: an outright tax on fossil fuels and a cap-and-trade system. In the latter instance, caps on emissions would be set and power generators, industries and other emitters of carbon would have to purchase permits to emit more carbon than their mandated limits. A market would be established for the trading of permits.

The carbon tax is favoured by some, such as former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo. It would be simpler to implement and less open to corruption than cap-and-trade. It would also set a clear price, something that would be easier for industries to plan around than the fluctuating price that a cap-and-trade system would entail. A tax would also raise a clear amount of revenue, which could be used for the research and development of renewable energy sources or as rebates to the public - for example, to offset higher energy prices.

Proponents of cap-and-trade argue that it has a clear advantage over a carbon tax in that a cap would effectively place a legally binding limit on emissions which a tax would not. While a tax would penalise all indiscriminately, a cap-and-trade system would penalise those who failed to keep within their caps but would reward those who did and who would thus be able to sell their permits in the market. A cap-and-trade system would encourage growth in new green sectors.

The cap-and-trade system was first used successfully in the United States in the 1980s to eliminate the use of leaded petrol in cars. A cap was placed on the production of leaded fuels, and refiners were allowed to buy and sell permits among themselves. Refiners producing unleaded fuels could sell their unused permits to leaded fuel producers. The latter, in order to compete in the market, were incentivised to turn to producing unleaded fuel. Within five years, nearly all leaded petrol was eliminated.

The Kyoto Protocol, the global climate pact now in force, provides for a cap-and-trade system in which 37 developed countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2per cent from 1990 levels. These countries could trade emission reduction credits among themselves, as well as offset their emissions by financing projects that reduce emissions in developing countries.

However, the Kyoto Protocol will end in 2012 and the world is in the midst of negotiating a new treaty. As the time for sealing a deal nears - set for next month at the 15th annual United Nations conference on climate change - several countries are beginning to warm to the idea of a carbon tax or a combination of a tax and emissions trading.

Whichever path is adopted, the emissions cuts must be deep enough to ensure that the 2 deg C limit is maintained. There is no sign yet that the nations of the world are close to agreeing on cuts that will meet that target.”

Remember these figures. Please also remember Brunei despite so insignificant in terms of absolute carbon dioxide emission (total), due to our small population, we have one of the highest per capita (i.e. per person) emission in the world. Something we should not be proud off.

Do our part. Save the Earth from being fried.....

I wonder what is the carbon footprint of all the frying done at the Pasar Malam. Lucky I have cut down on fried chicken wings from there. At least it will help in reducing our emission level, though insignificant in the big picture. But as the saying goes, “Sikit-sikit, lama-lama jadi bukit”.

1 comment:

  1. There is a problem at the heart of cap and trade, how to allocate the permits to emit or the revenue from auctioning them. It is clear from the response of oil and coal price to minor excess demand just before the boom turned to crunch that we are prepared to pay almost anything to sustain our energy consumption. The rights to emit will be worth trillions of dollars and sustainable worldwide agreement on who is entitled to sell them will therefore be extremely difficult.

    A carbon tax has some of the same problems once you try to go worldwide (who gets the revenue, fuel producing nation, fuel consuming nation or worthy cause?). Furthermore there is no way of knowing what rate you need the tax to be at to get emissions down to the desired level. The price consumers need to see to persuade them to change is the same whether you manipulate it with a tax or with cap and trade.

    There is a further problem with cap and trade if the permits are allocated to existing emitters rather than auctioned. Those emitting carbon dioxide have their marginal cost increased by the tradable value of the permit even though their total costs are unchanged. Basic microeconomics tells us that prices go up to equal marginal cost, and profits with them of course at the consumer’s expense.

    There is a third way that all nations could find attractive and easier to agree to without protracted negotiation.

    Fossil fuel producers and importers would contract for the capture and sequestration of a quantity of carbon dioxide equal to a proportion of that produced from the fuel they supply. The proportion would start at a few percent and build up. This would increase fuel price gradually, encouraging energy saving, nuclear, renewables, electric cars etc. It would also provide full, immediate funding for carbon capture and storage. Carbon tax or cap and trade schemes on the other hand only provide sufficient funding for carbon capture when tax rate or permit price has reached a high level, which may be too late.

    Energy saving, nuclear, renewables, electric cars etc. are only ways of filling the energy gap that cutting carbon dioxide emissions will create and mankind has been effectively filling energy gaps for centuries without the aid of agreed national or global strategies, taxes or caps. Carbon capture is different. It is a way of stopping pollution and will always add cost. You can legislate to stop pollution (which is economically inefficient) or you can use market forces by giving credit in a cap and trade system, credit against a carbon tax or by paying directly in fuel prices as above. If carbon capture is driven in any of these ways all the other things will happen too.

    The contract might permit capture to be delayed for a year if the quantity captured were increased by 10%, and for another year for another 10% etc. This would not only help with plant problems, but would also allow contracts to be placed today, providing a huge incentive to get carbon capture and storage up and running as soon as possible. It is not lack of know-how that is holding back carbon capture but the lack of an incentive to apply it widely, except as a demonstration of the technology.

    To contain global warming we must soon stop carbon emissions from power generation, cement manufacture etc. and substitute electricity for fuel use in many domestic, industrial and transport applications. Taxing carbon, capping emissions or contracting for carbon capture when fuel is produced could all provide the economic incentive, but unless the world joins in they will not solve the problem.

    Contracting for carbon capture is certain to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to whatever annual target is set (if the contracts are honoured) and is relatively easy for everyone to agree to because:

    As you restrict comment to 4096 characters I have left off the second half of my comment. You can read the rest at